The Blasters' self-titled debut on Slash Records was a major event in the hard-nosed but creatively stunted territory that '50s-based rock 'n' roll bands roam. Here was a band that could negotiate the tricky byways linking hillbilly, rockabilly and rhythm and blues without sounding fatuously stylized like the Stray Cats or self-consciously authentic like the Thunderbirds.
Phil Alvin was a potent and distinctive singer in a field in which most singers sound like their heroes. But it was brother Dave who really raised the ante by penning some of the more evocative rock 'n' roll songs since John Fogerty ruled Credence Clearwater Revival. Songs like "Marie Marie," "Border Radio" and "So Long Baby, Goodbye" represented a heady promise.
The group's new album, "Non Fiction" (Slash/Warner Brothers 23818-1), neither fulfills that promise nor fails it. Instead it reveals this band, and Dave Alvin in particular, struggling with ambition. Alvin contributes nine new songs, almost all engaging tales of working-class aspiration, desperation and the romances that fill the gap. But, in some cases, he simply hasn't fashioned the kind of compelling music needed to add emotional resonance to his stories.
"Bus Station" is a perfect example of Alvin's ability to evoke in a few details the realities of a failed love affair. Yet the music, the Blasters' basic Chuck Berry-cum-rockabilly synthesis, simply rocks unimaginatively along, oblivious to the song's poignant meaning.
However, when the songs are strong, this band comes alive and Alvin's stories become riveting. "It Must Be Love" seems to gain momentum each time Phil Alvin shouts out the joyous chorus and Gene Taylor's piano embellishes the sentiment. On "Long White Cadillac," a tribute to Hank Williams, Dave Alvin plays an ominous guitar break that captures the harrowing quality of this legend's life, while the band races on at a desperate pace. "Boomtown" chugs along on a locomotive rhythm, as Alvin masterfully details the character of the new West: "Skyscrapers rising from the desert floor/ 18 people 'round a liquor store/ Someone said they heard of a new boomtown."
Throughout the record, Phil Alvin's anguished voice is a treat. This singer, who can inflict a sense of torment on the silliest syllable, is one of rock's most underrated vocalists. It would have been nice if he had been given more songs like "Leaving," a beautiful soul ballad that features the talented horns of Lee Allen and Steve Berlin swelling and subsiding in muted unison.
By the time this band gets to the last song, "Tag Along," a cover of Rocket Morgan's Louisiana stomper, it sounds like everybody's happy to have some nonsense lyrics to play with, and the band lets fly with the rollicking American music that is its forte. Like the America they sing about, the Blasters have moved on in their pursuit of greatness and, if this album is not it, you can't doubt that they are restless and ambitious enough to look over the next hill.
Austin's LeRoi Brothers call the rock 'n' roll on their debut album, "Check This Action" (Amazing 1006), "trashabilly." It is rock 'n' roll with decidedly lower aspirations, lyrically and musically, than the Blasters'. Their primitive sound, half rhythm and half lust, is the kind of thing any decent society would view as utterly without redeeming value. But their retrograde fusion of rockabilly and garage rock really imposes rock's toughest test. Music that aspires to this kind of base revelry requires a trueness of spirit and emotion that most bands simply finesse through professionalism or creativity.
It takes only one cut, Steve Doerr's rousing invitation to bedlam, "Are You With Me," to prove that the LeRoi Brothers pass the test in fine fashion. Doerr backs the world into a corner and demands, "Are you with me baby, say yeah," and every rocking bone in your body joins the chorus with a "Yeah."
If guitarist Doerr contributes the inspired frat house originals, it is guitarist Don Leady who has combed the forgotten graveyards of rockabilly and come up with a bunch of equally inspired, if deranged, covers. Leady's hillbilly drawl is used to perfect effect on Benny Joy's moronically impassioned "Steady With Betty" and the confessional "Ballad of a Juvenile Delinquent." The band, driven by the charged rhythms of drummer Mike Buck and Thunderbird bassist Keith Ferguson, can even take a junky instrumental like the Night Raiders' "Cotton Pickin' " and trash it further.
If the LeRois sound like the kind of garage band most people would want to keep out of their garage, you're right. But you would be better off if you took Leady's advice in "Ain't I'm a Dog" when he crows, "Forget about the danger and think about the fun."